Caleb Johnson Studio transforms a coastal outbuilding into a light-filled guest cottage
The newly renovated “Pest House” at Eagle Point on Little Cranberry Island was aptly named five decades ago.
Owned by a family that’s been escaping from the city to the island for almost a century now, the tiny coastal cottage was originally built as a work shed at the rear of a 1920s main house. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it served as a retreat for young Steve Brooks and his older brother.
That’s because they sometimes found themselves banished from the main house. “We were pests,” says Steve, who was in his teens back then. He’s 70 today.
“Anytime children were being annoying, they were told to go over to that house,” says David Morris, project architect at Caleb Johnson Studio, the Portland architecture firm recently hired to renovate the little building.
It underwent a minor upgrade in the 1990s, with the addition of a galley kitchen along with a tiny bathroom but not much else. Now it’s evolving again. Steve’s son, Sam, is part of the next generation of the Brooks family to take over the reins as stewards of the family property. With his wife, Irish-born Laura Coleman, he tackled the little building’s renovation in 2017.
“Sam was the agent. We all got together when my sister and I decided we needed more living space for an expanding family,” says the elder Brooks. “He and his wife were charged with getting it done, and he took on the responsibilities.”
Sam and his wife contacted the architects with a fairly tall order. They wanted a complete reno- vation, but they didn’t want to lose the character of the family’s much-loved cabin overlooking the Atlantic. “It’s a place everybody cherished being able to stay in,” Morris says. “So they wanted it fresh and clean, but we needed to maintain that nostalgia for the family, to clean it up without scraping away the memories.”
Their budget was tight. For the architects, that meant prioritizing changes that would have the strongest effect and concentrating resources there first. “We were making choices by looking for big impact moments,” he says. “That was the formal path we were taking: Is this really doing something? When you don’t have much money, it’s important to spend it where it makes a difference.”
They enlarged the views out to the water (being careful to match up new and old cedar shingles on the exterior) and enhanced the visual connections between inside and out. “The site is so beautiful that in good weather no one wants to be inside anyway,” Morris says. “The views kind of pull you outside, so we wanted to go with that flow.”
They reorganized the cottage’s floor plan, removing interior partitions. “We tore out everything inside,” says Cory Duggan of Cory J. Duggan Carpentry “We didn’t change the footprint, but we did change the floor plan.”
The architects reimagined the structure’s tight 950 square feet and converted an exterior porch into a new, fully functional kitchen. Although untreated brown interior wood paneling had imbued the original space with a heavy feeling, they called for even more natural wood. But instead of leaving it all alone, they painted every wall white. “Now the light fills up the space,” he says.
They patched up worn floors with plywood, then covered them with scuff-resistant, heavy- duty paint in battleship gray. “It was dated before,” Duggan says. “Now the white walls and gray floors are like blank canvases for pieces of furniture to bring in color.”
That led to a collaborative effort on amenities like cabinetry. “Laura, the client, is Irish, and she has some European sensibilities, like Scandinavian design,” Morris says. “She wanted it to be bright white, so she found cabinets from Scandinavia, and images of modern English and Irish houses that were old but had been modernized.” They took what they believed to be the best of all they saw and liked, and arrived at contemporary solutions for the traditional cottage. “It’s a bright interior—everything is white, including the kitchen,” he says. “It became a modern kitchen on one side of the main living space, with maple countertops for a little bit of warmth.” The big idea was to use the bright white and natural light to turn what once had been a cramped, dark interior into something appealing for enjoyment by plenty of people, not just “pests.” “Now it’s enough to house a small family in the summertime,” Duggan says.
The renovated cabin is an extension of the family’s desire to create a series of retreats on the island where family and friends can gather. In addition to the little cottage and the main house, there is a house owned by a number of cousins not far away. For seven nearby acres, Sam and Laura have commissioned a master plan and cabin renovation by Caleb Johnson Studio.
This one’s the tiniest, though. “We wanted to allow anywhere from two to five people to come together in this space,” Morris says about the cottage. “In Maine, it can be beautiful one day and raining the next, so we had to think about how a family can be together in a small space. How can they come together and coexist?”
As they considered that, the architects also realized that this little cabin was more than a mere collaboration among architect, client, and builder: it was also a matrix for many generations. After all, responsibility for the property was handed off to Steve’s son and daughter-in-law not just for their enjoyment but for their children’s too.
“It’s true that Sam and Laura are really great clients who like to look at lots of options, and they know what they like and what they don’t like. It’s quite fun to have partners in design,” Morris says. “But they were certainly interested in it because Sam’s family has a history there and their children will have a heritage there too, so it’s a building for their family for tomorrow. It was very, very collaborative.”
Now there’s much to enjoy inside and out, for years to come. Once the cabin’s French doors are flung open for summer, vistas abound all around. There’s all of Acadia National Park with Cadillac Mountain and other ridges laid out in full view. There are also the islands of the Great Harbor of Mount Desert, including Seal Island, Sutton Island, and Great Cranberry Island.
There are spectacular Maine sunsets, and the local harbor too: “It looks across a body of water that’s spectacular,” Duggan says. “There’s a lot of boat traffic in the summer, both commercial and recreational, so it’s a dynamic view that’s always changing. It’s right out there and catches everything.
No wonder the little cabin gets more than its share of use, even if no one’s there year-round. “Over the course of summer, people are coming in and out,” Steve says. “It’s also used more in winter than the big house because it’s easier to heat and they don’t have to open up the whole thing.”
A “Pest House” today in name only, this little coastal cottage—now transformed into a comfortable guesthouse—is finding new life as a destination that’s in high demand.